Iran’s rocking rebels

[2 May 2011]

By Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Once upon a time, rock ‘n’ roll was outlaw music.

In Iran it still is.

In “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” songwriters Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad) and Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) are kept busy dodging the morals police and official red tape in a dogged effort to get their rock band out of Iran and to a long-planned gig in London.

Ashkan just ended a jail term for playing sinful music. While he was inside, his band broke up, so in addition to juggling visa hassles he must rebuild the group — including hiring two additional girl singers to appear with Negar because the authorities won’t allow a lone unmarried woman to travel with several men.

Early on they encounter Nader (Hamed Behdad), a Brando-worshipping, motorcycle-riding hustler with his finger on the pulse of Tehran’s underbelly. In short order, Askhan and Negar are getting a first-hand look at the city’s underground.

We’re talking literally under ground . In basements all over town they discover recording studios, rehearsal spaces, concert venues and other subterranean haunts situated so as not to draw the attention of the religious cops. Like persecuted Christians in the Roman catacombs, these long-haired musical rebels have gone to the bunkers.

One group rehearses in a rural cow barn, until the drummer catches hepatitis from their bovine audience. Another ensemble cannot plug in until a nosy downstairs neighbor goes to work, and then there’s always the chance that the bored kid next door will squeal to the authorities just for the fun of seeing the flashing red lights.

Most of these musicians have gone to jail and had their instruments seized several times over. They keep at it because they love to play. In a culturally repressed society, it’s the only time they feel fully alive.

Technically, Bahman Ghobadi ‘s film — which won a special jury prize at Cannes — is fiction. But it was shot documentary-style on the streets of Tehran with a cast of real-life musicians who play themselves. Ghobadi (“A Time for Drunken Horses “) had no permits, so he and his cast and crew could have been arrested at any time.

(The situation is reminiscent of the making of 1945’s “Rome, Open City,” a drama about the Italian resistance shot surreptitiously by Roberto Rossellini under the noses of the Germans who still occupied the capital).

Top acting honors go to Behdad, wonderfully watchable as the know-it-all Nader.

This high-energy schmoozer seems to know every player in town and how to get forged passports and visas. Arrested for having an apartment full of contraband DVDs, he puts on a hilarious show of tearful contriteness that convinces his police interrogator to waive the proscribed 75 lashes. Ten minutes later Nader is back on the street organizing an illegal concert.

And, yes, the music here is quite good.



A child bride embarks on a decade-long odyssey of sexual and romantic discovery in “Jolene,” based on a short story by E.L. Doctorow.

I suspect it was a better read than it is a movie.

Jessica Chastain plays the title character, an orphan who marries an idiot (Eddie Guerra), falls for his sleazy uncle (Dermot Mulroney), becomes the girl toy of a juvie matron (Frances Fisher) and gets involved with a sleazy tattoo artist (Rupert Friend), a mobbed-up gambler (Chazz Palminteri), a fundamentalist Oklahoma oil heir (Michael Vartan) and a lot of horny semi drivers.

Director Dan Ireland doesn’t seem to know what tone he’s going for. Comic? Tragic? Help us out here.

Sometimes the characters and situations feel as if they belong in the 1950s, though the setting is contemporary.

What “Jolene” mainly has going for it is Chastain, a 30-year-old redhead who will co-star this summer in “The Help” and Terrence Malick’s long-delayed “The Tree of Life.” Here she effortlessly segues through her character’s chameleonic permutations — freckled 15-year-old, latter-day hippie, truck stop hooker, Vegas showgirl, high society mother and wife — without ever losing Jolene’s core of innocence and vulnerability.

But she’s limited by the character. Jolene is a physical and emotional punching bag. You’d think she’d learn.

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